What I Fail to Realize
By Bryan Caplan
I’m a fallible human being, so when people say, “Bryan, what you fail to realize is…” I listen closely. Precisely what do I fail to realize? I’d really like to know.
Most of the time, though, I’m sadly disappointed. The things I allegedly “fail to realize” tend to be smack dab in the middle of my class notes and publications. Latest example: Many critics of my cosmopolitan and open borders stance have faulted me for “failing to realize” that normal human beings value their group identities.
The reality is that I’ve been vocally affirming the political importance of group identity for over a decade. Check out my undergraduate and graduate course notes on voter motivation, this article, my posts on the Respect Motive, or my effusive praise for the expressive voting model. My punchline of American partisanship, for example, is that the data shows:
1. Strong evidence for group-interested voting, with race being the main group of interest.
2. Self-interest plays a marginal role at most.
I even give my graduate Public Choice students this essay assignment:
Consider another country and/or historical era with which you are familiar. Write a case study of its politics that weighs the explanatory power of the SIVH [Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis], group-interest, and ideology.
How can I grasp the massive political effects of group identity, but remain a cosmopolitan and open borders advocate? Simple.
First, I think the effects of group identity are not only massive, but massively unjust. There’s nothing wrong with eating traditional food or wearing a celebratory hat. But humans’ love of our own group is a fundamental cause of unjust treatment of outgroups. Love of family has the same risk, but since the evils of nepotism are widely acknowledged, the downside is minor. Love of broader group, in contrast, runs amok. As I explained a while back:
Despite its mighty evolutionary basis, almost everyone recognizes moral strictures against familial favoritism. Almost everyone knows that “It would help my son” is not a good reason to commit murder, break someone’s arm, or steal. Indeed, almost everyone knows that “It would help my son” is not a good reason for even petty offenses – like judging a Tae Kwon Do tournament unfairly because your son’s a contestant.
Nationalism, in contrast, is widely seen as an acceptable excuse for horrific crimes against outgroups. Do you plan to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent foreign civilians? Just say, “It will save American [German/Japanese/Russian/whatever] lives” – and other members of your tribe will nod their heads. Do you want to deprive millions of foreigners of the basic human rights to sell their labor to willing buyers, rent apartments from willing landlords, and buy groceries from willing merchants? Just say, “It’s necessary to protect American jobs” in a self-righteous tone, then bask in the admiration of your fellow citizens.
Second, justice aside, group identity has bad effects on those who seriously embrace it. A life well-lived revolves around the appreciation and pursuit of merit. Intense group identity undermines both. People who cherish their group identities have trouble assessing merit objectively; they naturally overrate their own group, and underrate outsiders. And the more obsessed you are with your group’s merit, the less you focus on the merit that really counts: your own.
Third, despite its massive political effects, commitment to group identity is shallow. While it governs people’s political behavior, only a small minority are willing to pay a high personal cost for identity. As I’ve explained before, identity is all about lip service:
How can I say that? By noting the stark contrast between how much people say they care about community, and how lackadaisically they try to fulfill their announced desire. I’ve long been shocked by the fraction of people who call themselves “religious” who can’t even bother to attend a weekly ceremony or speak a daily prayer. But religious devotion is fervent compared to secular communitarian devotion. How many self-styled communitarians have the energy to attend a weekly patriotic or ethnic meeting? To spend a few hours a week watching patriotic or ethnically-themed television and movies? To utter a daily toast to their nation or people? Indeed, only a tiny percentage of people who claim to love community find the time for communitarian slacktivism.
You could argue that coordination costs explain the curious shortage of intentional communities. But nothing stops secular communitarians from matching the time commitment of suburban Catholics. Well, nothing but their own apathy.
The lesson: While individualists do tend to neglect mankind’s craving for community, they err on the side of truth. Actions really do speak louder than words. And actions reveal that people are far less communitarian than they claim.
Contrary to my critics, then, I’m well-aware that group identity is a mighty force in the world. What my critics fail to realize, though, is that group identity is only a mighty force because politics distills lamentable but largely inert human emotions into political poison.